Should I Be Tracking My Food Intake?Published on Tuesday, July 18, 2023 by
To track or not to track…
As I wrap up appointments with many of my patients seeking weight loss, I often get asked the question, “Wait, don’t you want me to count my calories?” The answer is usually that it’s unnecessary, followed by a sigh of relief. I totally get it!
Recording every bite of food you put in your mouth can feel cumbersome and disruptive. After all, you’re busy and don’t have time for that! Every now and then, I do get a patient who loves to break out the food diary, as it can be a useful tool in maximizing weight loss, among other health goals.
Tracking dietary intake can provide clarity on the types of foods you are eating as well as portion sizes. However, a common issue I have seen with patients who keep a record is that they tend to focus on the calories over the quality of the food they are eating.
For example, you could consume 2,000 calories/day of processed meats and refined grains, or you could eat the same amount of calories consisting of nutrient-dense choices. Similarly, if a patient meets their calorie goal earlier in the day than expected, they may feel pressured to skip later meals to avoid exceeding a calorie limit. When meals are skipped too often, hormones that regulate hunger and satiety can get out of whack, leading to difficulty listening to your body and maintaining a healthy weight in the long term.
Now, there are many other instances where keeping a food diary can be useful. Let’s explore these scenarios.
To determine your GI triggers. Tracking dietary intake is essential to any elimination diet, such as the Low FODMAP diet. It can also help you find correlations between your diet and acid reflux, GERD, or IBS. This article on FODMAP Friendly App Reviews outlines some apps useful for this very purpose.
When managing food allergies. Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease and are doing your best to avoid gluten. Yet, symptoms still persist. Keeping a log of the foods you are eating and resulting reactions can be valuable in identifying sneaky sources of gluten. Or, maybe you have a latex allergy and want to see which foods cause a rash. Recording foods consumed and your symptoms can help you get to the bottom.
To know your baseline intake of specific nutrients. If you have a medical condition requiring closer surveillance of specific nutrients such as sodium or fiber, tracking your intake for even a few days can help determine your baseline consumption. Once you know this number, it is easier to adjust your intake according to your health goals.
When taking specific medications. Some meds have drug-nutrient interactions, such as the popular blood thinner called Warfarin. When taking this medication, it is essential to eat consistent amounts of vitamin K, or it can interfere with the effectiveness of your medication. Monitoring your intake of foods rich in vitamin K can help your prescription precisely do what it is meant to.
When identifying emotional eating and your triggers. Journaling your intake doesn’t always mean tracking what you are eating. It can also help you track your feelings surrounding intakes, such as anxiety or boredom. Suppose you have identified that you use food to cope with specific emotions or scenarios. In that case, you can be empowered to find healthier ways of coping with the help of a trusted health professional, such as a therapist.
Speaking of therapists, I spoke with Tammy Holcomb, LCMHCS, CEDS Supervisor, NBCCH, and owner of Stargazer Counseling PLLC. Tammy specializes in working with individuals who have disordered eating patterns, and she provided some valuable insight as to when keeping a food diary can be more harmful than helpful in individuals with a history of disordered eating. She explains, “[Food]Tracking can be very triggering for some people because it reminds them of past days of dieting/counting calories. So, we don't use it with everyone.”
She elaborates on this by stating, “For folks with disordered eating, one of the problems with tracking is that they start to listen to an app or "rulebook" to know when they are hungry vs. listening to their body. For people who have spent much of their life dieting, it is often really hard for these folks to really be able to identify hunger and fullness”. If you have a history of disordered eating, it is a good idea to consult your care team if you are considering keeping a food diary.
At the end of the day, keeping a food diary is just one of many available tools in your nutrition toolbelt. And there is certainly no one-size-fits-all toolbelt when it comes to our health.
Savannah DuffyMS, RDN, LD